Catch 22: Tony Frazier – Writing to publish vs. writing to sell

There’s a mantra you read all the time on sites like Writer Beware (and while I will be taking minor issue with this one thing they say, I don’t take issue with them–they are a great resource with a lot of valuable advice): “money always flows to the writer.”

The mantra is used in the context of publishing through vanity presses. Basically, if anyone asks you to pay money to publish your book, run away. They are ripping you off. The “real” publishing industry always pays you.

That model is starting to break down a little with the spreading practice of self-pubbed ebooks. But before I published my latest e-book, Hero Go Home, I published a novel titled Blue Falcon through vanity publisher iUniverse. It didn’t make me any money, and it’s far from my best work now, but I don’t regret it a bit.

Blue Falcon was the first book I ever finished, a sprawling, complex novel about a modern Korean war with several viewpoint characters on both sides of the conflict. When it was done, I queried several agencies and almost immediately got a request for a full manuscript from a major one. I sent it and waited. Several months later, I got a reply saying no thanks with no other real feedback.

I tried other queries and also joined up with a program through Penguin Putnam which would get you an “in-depth critique” from an editor at the company, with a shot at a publishing deal. After over a year of waiting, my in-depth critique consisted of “it’s too long and the foreign characters’ names are hard to keep straight.”

So after years of futile effort, unable to bring myself to write anything else until I had this book out of my system, I decided to go with iUniverse. At the time, their prices were very reasonable (they’ve increased considerably since then), they were Print on Demand so I didn’t have to buy a ton of copies, and they offered several other valuable services. I sat down to prepare my manuscript for publishing with them and ran into a problem.

The POD model trades the convenience of only publishing a few copies of a book at a time with the inconvenience of a higher cover price. My manuscript was so long that the book would cost $25.00 as a trade paperback. In order to get it down to a reasonable price I thought people would pay, I would have to cut at least 10% out of the manuscript.

That was the single most valuable lesson I think I ever received in writing. When I was writing the book, I was afraid to cut things out, because I had no idea what worked and what didn’t. I hoped I would have an editor or agent who could nudge me through a rewrite and help me get it more focused. But now I was my own publisher, and thinking like a publisher rather than a writer enabled me to cut out a lot of needless material. Blue Falcon as published was a much better book than the one I originally wrote, and I owe it all to the decision to self-publish. For me, the experience was worth the money I paid.

I had a similar experience with Hero Go Home. Early drafts wandered and waffled. It wasn’t until I decided to put it out on the web and started reworking it as a publisher with an audience in mind that I really got the story working the way it was supposed to. I’m pretty happy with the final result.

We’ve all heard horror stories about authors so successful that publishers were afraid or perhaps contractually unable to edit their work anymore. The result was flabby, overwritten stories that weren’t nearly as good as they should have been. For me, self-publishing and thinking in terms of the experience of the final product on the audience has greatly improved my storytelling. And with modern self-publishing services, you don’t even have to risk your own money upfront. All money flows to the writer again, so I can even stay on Writer Beware’s good side.

Tony Frazier’s short stories have been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons and the anthology, Daikaiju! 3: Giant Monsters vs. the World. He is currently serializing a new story 5 days a week at Enjoy your daily dose of super-adventure with Hero Go Home: Run Digger Run! starting October 3!


9 comments on “Catch 22: Tony Frazier – Writing to publish vs. writing to sell

  1. Tony, I really love the point you make here. Vanity/subsidised publishing isn’t necessarily the bogeyman people like to paint it, as long as you, as customer, know what you are doing, that this isn’t the way big publishing operates, and are OK with that.

  2. Hi Tony (and Patty),

    First of all, I love that cover. Really cool.

    The rule of money always flowing to the writer doesn’t really fit the self-publishing writer. To produce a professional product, we are going to have to shell out somewhere along the way. For me, editing is the big expense. I can do the rest myself or barter.

    Some people interpret the old rule re. money as meaning they should do everything themselves and not spend a penny. Not always the best approach.


    • “The rule of money always flowing to the writer doesn’t really fit the self-publishing writer.”

      Which is the point I’m making. But because so many people get taken in by vanity publishing scams, many well-meaning folks have taken a zero-tolerance approach in reaction. The general attitude seems to be that a writer who publishes himself is like a lawyer who represents himself, or a doctor who treats himself.

      Which may be right. What a lot of us are doing now is an experiment to prove it one way or the other.

      • First of all, I have no problem taking a zero-tolerance approach to either scams or poor value deals and Writer Beware do great work.

        However, I have seen some people contort themselves in strange ways trying to make the old law hold true for self-publishing. Saying that the money most still flow to the writer, that the “publisher” (even if it is yourself) must remain separate, and do all the paying out for covers, edits etc. And the publisher must pay the writer a share of the royalties (even if it is you paying yourself), and so on.

        This may be good business practice when you are established, and especially if you are publishing anyone else, but if you are only publishing yourself, it seems a little unnecessary and perhaps even impractical. When a small business owner starts up, they don’t pay themselves a salary before the business gets on its feet – they plough back every penny into the business. So, when I get a royalty cheque, that’s going to pay for my next edit, or for an advertising campaign, or a new website. I’m not going to “pay” myself a percentage of that, then see what’s left over!

        Anyway, this is all kind of off-topic – apologies. It’s interesting that you said that the logistics of making a print version forced you to crop and trim your prose. I wonder if you had first self-published in the digital era if the opposite may have happened – given that length doesn’t affect the cost.

        With digital self-publishing we are seeing writers experiment with length and form. Novels seem to be getting shorter in certain genres (like thrillers and paranormal romance), but longer in things like fantasy. We are also seeing a lot more writers experiment with things like short stories, novellas, and serialized fiction.

        All this is to be welcomed, and perhaps writers will revert to giving the story the requisite amount of pages – no more and no less. After all, we have all read books where either the idea was stretched out to fill a pre-defined notion of how long a book should be, or cut savagely to make printing economical.

        Perhaps though, this new freedom requires a firmer hand of the editor than ever. As you pointed out, we have all experienced writers who, after gaining success, seemed to override their editors and produce very bloated stories.


        P.S. It’s the 50th anniversary of Catch-22.

  3. The thing in this story I find a bit disturbing is the initial assumption that it was the publisher’s job to fix what was wrong with the book. That’s not how traditional publishing works, and yes, approaching it that way would be a tremendous waste of everyone’s time.

    For all the recent optimism about self-publishing, my own worthless anecdotal evidence is that I still do not personally know anyone who has actually purchased a self-published book that was not written by a friend, immediate family, or author who was previously published by the traditional system.

    I’m not saying self-publishing isn’t growing and becoming a more viable enterprise, but I am just kind of hoping to reality-check anyone who thinks they can “break in” to making an actual living as an author far more easily via self-publishing than the traditional route. It’s easier to make your book available, for sure. But it’s harder to get random people to click the “buy” button, so that may or may not cancel things out.

    • But there is the assumption that the traditional publisher will edit the book heavily. And that is what happens to traditionally published writers I know. I have only published novellas and short stories (well-not that short). My edits have always been minimal, but I’m sure it doesn’t compare. Deep, structural edits suggested by publishing house editors are common enough for authors to expect it. As to whether you’d call that ‘fixing’ I’m not sure. Would the book have been bad without those edits? I’m not sure. As art form, the written word is extremely subjective.

      As to who has purchased a self-published book not by a friend… I have had a growing feeling that the self-published ebook and traditional markets are actually two completely different beasts, with largely different buyers. If you venture into the depths of the Kindleboards, which are full of self-published authors, you will see that there is a small but strong group of very successful self-published authors who have never seen a traditional publishing contract and whose books have rarely even seen paper. And for all the high-brow-ness of the traditional industry, their books are enjoyable and readable.

  4. “The thing in this story I find a bit disturbing is the initial assumption that it was the publisher’s job to fix what was wrong with the book. That’s not how traditional publishing works…”

    Your experience with traditional publishing may be different from my own (admittedly secondhand) experience. When I said I hoped an editor or agent would nudge me through a rewrite, that was based on multiple friends who have said things like “my agent/editor gave me a conditional acceptance, but wants these changes first.” It’s not uncommon.

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